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Posted Online on Friday 18, March 2005 20:40 IST


Muslims in India's Murshidabad district starving to death

By Zafarul-Islam Khan

Published in the print edition of The Milli Gazette (16-31 March 2005)

New Delhi: The Hong-Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has alerted that people in Murshidabad district are dying of starvation while the government authorities have not taken any effective action to stop the deaths. One five-year-old boy is reported to have been eating dirt before he died. According to a local doctor, "The entire area is under threat of insufficient nutritious food." In a report sent to MG, the AHRC said quoting a local NGO, Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum), that no government programmes to address starvation are properly functioning in the area despite the fact that the local authorities are well aware of what is going on. 

The affected area is Dayarampur village and surrounding areas, including Udayanagar, Suryanagar Colony and Paraspur of Murshidabad district, West Bengal. The report names some who died on 25 February and identifies them as Azizul Haque, Alimuddin Seik (aged about 67), his wife Jahida Beoa (aged 60) and Sattar Seik (aged 50) and says that deaths are "ongoing" in the area.

According to the AHRC, on a recent visit to the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, colleagues of Masum were shocked to hear reports of numerous recent starvation deaths among villagers there, about which the authorities appear to be doing nothing. Some of the reports that Masum has received are as follows:

1. Neimuddin stated that his brother Azizul Haque died of hunger because of no work to earn a livelihood. Neimuddin said that before his brother died he had not witnessed any cooking at his home for days. His brother finally died of starvation. Up to today Azizul's wife and son are starving, and may also die from hunger soon. 

2. Sukuda Bibi, a relative of Alimuddin Seik and his wife Jahida Beoa, says that both of them died recently after their bodies swelled up from malnutrition. Sukuda Bibi told the Rural Health Centre of Sadikhanrdeyar that there was no food at home. Whatever they had, no matter how unhygienic or lacking in nutrition, they ate up in a desperate and ultimately failed attempt to survive. Dr Ashish Kumar Ghosh, the Medical Officer attached with the Rural Health Centre, said that, "The cause of death in Jahida's case was associated with old age problems. However, malnutrition was one of the major causes of her suffering. I visited the victims' village and found that the entire area is under threat of insufficient nutritious food."

3. Sattar Seik died of hunger at the Behrampur District Sadar Hospital. He was referred there from the Rural Health Centre of Sadikhanrdeyar. On this case Dr Ashish Kumar Ghosh said, "We don't have proper and sufficient medical equipment and so we have to refer our patients to the district hospital." Dr Matiur Rahman, a doctor attached to the Behrampur District Hospital said, "The patients who have been referred to here are not in a condition even to utter a word. They have been kept on oxygen but nothing can be said regarding their improvement."

4. Shyamali Halder said, "Another five-year-old boy also died suffering from the same cause. Five days ago his stomach was swelled up. It was found out that he had been living by eating dirt. For many days there had been no cooking in his house." 

According to Masum, "Every day someone or the other dies of hunger in the village of Dayarampur or among other adjacent villages. They have not even heard of Annapurna Yojana, a central government scheme intended to give them food grains when in need. One handicapped man named Amir Shah complained that their names have not even been included in the Below Poverty Line list, which would allow them to apply for assistance."

When the Sub-divisional Officer of Murshidabad, Mr Rabindranath Sarkar, was approached he admitted that there is an acute problem and shortage of food grains in different villages of this district. He said that he is trying to make his best possible effort from a limited capacity. He also said that he has informed the District Magistrate about these incidents. 

Mr Kanchan Chowdhury, the Block Development Officer of Jalangi, in Murshidabad district, said, "Women of this locality are fleeing to other places to get work. We are looking for options to address this economic crisis. Hopefully it will work out soon."

Mr Yunush Sarkar, a member of the Legislative Assembly, West Bengal, said that like other countries, people in Murshidabad too are below the poverty level, but he denied that they are dying of hunger.

Masum has also said in its report:
"The hunger in Murshidabad district has affected the villagers so badly that a large number have been displaced to other areas looking for means to survive. Large numbers of students are dropping out of the schools, as it is almost impossible to carry on studies with an empty stomach, and they are being sent by their families to work elsewhere. People say that so many meetings have been held with the local Block Development Officer and other officers attached with the local civil administration, and also the village council, but all have been in vain. 

"Apart from this, fertile agricultural land, houses, cattle and everything are being ruined, and the environmental conditions are worsening. These villages are situated along the river Padma, the bank of which has been eroding for the last ten years. As a result, fertile land is being lost. Since 2002 the erosion has rapidly increased. Almost all able-bodied male members of Dayarampur village have left in search of work elsewhere, leaving their elderly, female members and children at home, who are falling prey to starvation. Last year too, two children breathed their last due to starvation.

"The government is making mockery of basic human rights. According to the authorities, India is now self-sufficient in food grains. Our country is also sending so many shiploads of grain to different countries affected by natural calamities like the tsunami, while our own people are dying for want of food. The warehouses of the Food Corporation of India are full, but the people in such circumstances have nothing. The West Bengal government is letting its people starve in violation of its constitutional obligations, and those under international law."

The issue was raised in the legislative assembly of the West Bengal state on 15 March when Mrs Sonali Guha, a member of the opposition Trinamul Congress Party, moved an adjournment motion referring to the starvation death of Panchu Sheikh, a resient of Jalangi in Murshidabad, the previous day. She said another 25 people were teetering on the brink, accusing the state of looking the other way. Ms Guha said that the rationing system had virtually collapsed. She demanded a statement by chief minister Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on the preventive steps taken so far. Mr Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, Opposition chief whip said that the state did not learn any lesson from earlier starvation deaths at Chanchole and Amlasole and failed to improve the PDS in the affected areas. The Congress Party too moved an adjournment motion over the issue. Congress member Asit Mitra said that the state did not send food and medical help to the affected areas and that it was trying to hush up the matter. As the government failed to come up with a satisfactory reply, both Congress and Trinamul memers walked out of Assembly.

Meanwhile yet another person died of starvation at Jalangi in Murshidabad on 16 March. A widow, Jhaatumon Bewa (75), a widow from Ghoshpara village in Ghoshpara grampanchayat died suffering from malnutrition for the last few months. When the Padma river washed away their farmland and their homes, her son left the village to look for job elsewhere. Her daughters too left the village after getting married. One of her daughters, also a widow, stayed with her and looked after her. Begging was the only means of earning for them, villagers said. During the harvest season, she was seen gleaning paddy and wheat in the fields beside the eroding banks of the Padma. Jhaatumon lived near the residence of Ghoshpara gram panchayat pradhan. She ran from pillar to post for government help but her appeal was ignored by the panchayat, her daughter alleged.

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